Antitrust and ebooks: regulators miss the big DRM lock-in picture

US antitrust regulators have never really been able to find the right place to stick their lever and pry when it comes to the Internet (witness their failure to understand Microsoft's platform dominance in the 90s). Now they're going after various publishers and Apple over price fixing (my publisher is included, and for the record, I don't agree with their stance on "agency pricing"), but they're missing all the big elephants in the room: platform lock-in by way of DRM, prohibitions created by both Apple and Amazon on using third-party payment systems on their apps, and all the associated ticking bombs that represent the real, enduring danger to the ebook marketplace. Every dollar that is spent on a locked, proprietary platform is a dollar of opportunity cost that society will have to spend to get out from under the would-be monopolists of ebooks when (not if) they abuse their power (see my latest PW column on this).

Wired's Tim Carmody does a really good job of pointing out the fail here, as antitrust regulators miss the forest of lock-in for the trees of abusive pricing.

What’s left out of the Justice department’s lawsuit might be even better news for Amazon than what’s included. There is no broader look at any of the anticompetitive vagaries of the e-book market beyond publishers’ negotiations with retailers in the period before and after the launch of iBooks.

The suit blasts most favored nation agreements without noting that Amazon has aggressively pursued MFN agreements with publishing partners, including partners whose books it sells wholesale. It’s completely silent on retailers’ and device manufacturers’ use of DRM to lock customers into a single bookstore. Amazon is purely a market innovator, not a budding monopolist, even as the DOJ notes that Amazon’s pricing power helped determine pricing power across the industry.

Blogger Mike Cane wrote a powerful email to attorneys at the Department of Justice listed in the lawsuit titled, “Dear DoJ: You Need To Sue Apple Again.” It cites Apple’s in-app purchasing rules that prohibit Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and other retailers from offering books for iOS devices on the same terms that Apple can offer in iBooks, without browser workarounds.

This, Cane says, “is every bit as much restraint of trade as the collusive price-fixing that made the Department bring Apple and its co-conspirators before the court for remedy.”

But it’s actually great news for Amazon that the DOJ isn’t opening up restrictions on in-device purchases. Once thrown, that stone bounces back to hit Amazon in the face right away.

Jeff Bezos Should Send Eric Holder a Christmas Card

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